Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
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Velveteen vs. The Thaw.

Title: Velveteen vs. The Thaw.
Summary: The trials of a formerly retired superheroine are destined never to be done, especially when the heroine in question was foolish enough to agree to serve the seasonal lands...

***

Cradled in a bed of moss and new spring leaves, draped in a blanket of flower petals and thistledown, Velveteen slept. Her skin was back to a healthy brown, and her hair had grown six inches since the last of the cold had bled out of her and her body had remembered what it was to be a living thing. That was the only sign of how much time had passed while she was in Winter, and while there had been some discussion of cutting it before she woke, Persephone had pointed out that Velveteen was likely to have better things to worry about, and wouldn’t realize the significance of the change anyway. So the sleeping heroine’s hair had gone untouched as she slept on.

She had been asleep for six days as the ice passed out of her heart and her dreams came creeping back to her, their hats clutched in their hands and their eyes cast toward the distant idea of the ground. Snow did not dream, after all, and she had been frozen for so very long. So much longer than she knew.

On the seventh day Velveteen gasped and opened her eyes, staring at the tangled ceiling of vines and intertwined branches. A few squirrels and brightly-colored songbirds were perching there, staring down at her with cartoonish curiosity. Velveteen blinked.

“Oh, good,” said a voice. It wasn’t familiar--she was quite sure she’d never heard it before--but she knew it all the same. It was the voice she sometimes heard in her dreams, when she had been beaten badly on a patrol and was trying to sleep despite the pain in her ribs and knuckles. It was the voice of slow growth and swift decay, and she knew it loved her, even as she knew that it wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice her if it saw the need. “You’re awake. I was starting to think you were going to sleep straight through to Summer, and since they’re the only season that doesn’t have a claim on you, that would have been awkward for all of us.”

Velveteen attempted to speak. Her mouth barely moved, and the sound that escaped it was no louder than a butterfly’s sneeze. Her eyes didn’t widen, exactly, but the muscles around them tensed, her pupils constricting in temporary panic.

“It’s all right,” said the voice. “Please, try to stay calm; don’t get yourself worked up. Winter had twined itself into your bones. That’s what Winter does. It chills you until you think you’ll never be warm again. We’ve been pulling the cold out of you, a little bit at a time, like churning the earth in the garden before planting. It was necessary, you see, but it would have been extremely painful if we hadn’t numbed you first.”

Velveteen managed, with an extreme effort, to blink. The motion seemed to knock a little bit of feeling loose from the numbness: she felt threads anchoring her to the ground, rooted deep in her flesh and feeding on whatever substance she possessed.

Velma “Velveteen” Martinez was not prone to overreaction. A lifetime spent defending her community and working minimum wage jobs to make ends meet had left her tough, determined, and capable of rolling with almost anything. This was a step too far. Closing her eyes, she allowed unconsciousness to take her back.

Persephone, seated next to Velveteen’s bier, smiled and continued knitting. Patience was a virtue, and she had always been a virtuous woman.

Besides. She wasn’t going to need to wait much longer.

*

The Seasonal Lands are interesting from a scholarly perspective, mainly due to the contradiction which they represent. They are living mirrors of the human subconscious, painting humanity’s ideas about faith and death and the wheel of the year across metaphysical space. They are primal manifestations of the forces of the universe, immutable and malleable at the same time, constant only in that they will always, always change. Changes to the real world will echo in the Seasonal Lands. Changes in the Seasonal Lands will do the same in the real world.

This phenomenon has been well documented but remains notoriously difficult to prove, as it requires both access to the Seasonal Lands and a means of implementing and measuring change. The anecdotal data is strong. The proof is not. Regardless, it seems certain that what impacts one will impact the other, keeping the two realities inexorably connected, regardless of the desires of their respective occupants.

Spring has historically been the most mercurial of the seasons. It is the time of rebirth and new growth, of the world coming back to life after the long, slow days of winter. It is also the time of heavy rains and fierce winds, of destructive recovery. Everything has a price, in the spring as well as in Spring itself, and nowhere is this more perfectly embodied than in the patron goddess of the country, Persephone, who watches over both life and death. No one has ever called her cruel. No one has ever called her particularly nice, either; she is not the place to turn for succor without judgment.

But she is kind. On that, most everyone agrees. Persephone holds life in one hand and death in the other, and while she is too rarely merciful--mercy is not a strong suit of her season--she is almost always kind. It seems like a small thing. To those who have come before her, helpless and hurting, it is everything in the world. She is not the only member of the Greek pantheon to have endured into the modern day. Her husband, Hades, remains an active part of Winter, although he has long since turned all management of the season over to his jolly successor. Aphrodite can often be seen in Summer, and Demeter has been known to meet with her daughter in the golden fields of Autumn, bringing the Harvest in. So Persephone is not unique. She is simply the only goddess of her line to still take an active interest in humanity.

Where Persephone walks, new growth follows. This does not always endear her to people, as growth can be a very difficult, very painful thing. But she tries her best, and she keeps her season growing green, despite the changing ideas of humanity about what the spring should represent. She has learned to share her space with fertility icons and talking rabbits, and still she has managed to remain essentially, at her core, a good person.

May such high praise one day be heaped upon us all.

*

When Velveteen woke for the second time, she was no longer numb. She gasped and sat up, flailing at the small roots that dangled from her arms like cobwebs. They withered and broke off at her touch, falling to the ground, where they dissolved into so much dust.

That was the last straw. “Ew ew ew!” Velveteen wailed, leaping to her feet and running her hands down her legs, wiping still more roots away. Part of her noted the color of her skin and how warm it was, how wonderfully, realistically warm. That part of her was content. The rest of her was a little busy freaking out over the fact that she was still covered in tiny dangling roots, implying that whatever strange fruit they had sprouted was now embedded in her body.

Eventually, all the roots she could reach had been wiped away, and she was panting from the effort. Slowly, Velveteen calmed and took a deep breath, feeling the sweet, warm air feel her lungs. There was that word again: warm. She was warm, because she was no longer frozen.

She was also naked, surrounded by trampled greenery, and alone.

“Oh, this is good,” she muttered, turning to take a slower, more careful look around herself. She was standing in a grotto that seemed to have been crafted entirely out of living vegetation. It was sort of like being back in the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle, except for the part where if she’d been there, the Princess or one of her kangaroo butlers would have appeared by now to scold her for stomping on the flowers. No. This was not familiar ground, and any similarities they shared would only serve to lower her guard.

This was the Spring, and in a very real sense, this was a foreign country. There were three seasons with a claim on her. This was the only one where she had never really spent any time.

“Look at it this way,” she said, speaking in part to hear her voice. It sounded different when it was supported by actual breath, and not just by air. In the Winter, she had breathed only to speak. Here, she was doing it to survive. That mattered. That mattered so much more than she ever could have guessed before it had been taken away. “You thought Santa was your friend, and he let the Aurora Bitch-e-alis turn you into a snow bunny. Spring thawed you out first thing. Maybe this won’t be so bad.”

She had a lifetime’s practice in the fine art of lying to herself. Even so, she couldn’t quite make her words sound believable, not even to her own ears. Yes, Santa had allowed Aurora to transform her into a snow creature, but he hadn’t been happy about it: she could see that now, with her emotions waking up and quietly recoloring her memories of her time in Winter, like Turnerization of the heart. He had always looked so sad when he’d seen her walking, frozen, through his winter wonderland. Given his druthers, he would have kept her as she was, patchwork and damaged and alive, and allowed her to serve the season as a friend, and not as a captive.

And none of that changed the fact that when she had arrived, she had been dropped into the storm; none of that could give her back the days she’d spent frozen to her core, transformed by whatever strange magic dwelt in Aurora’s mountain. Maybe he’d been her friend once, and maybe he still thought of himself in that manner, but when she had needed him most, he had allowed someone else to step in and hurt her direly. That was the sort of treatment she had received from her friends here on the shivering side of the calendar. What kind of courtesy could she expect from her enemies?

Spring wasn’t her enemy. Not like Autumn sometimes was. So she couldn’t trust them the way her sudden warmth made her want to, but she didn’t need to fear them either.

What she needed was a way out of this room, and maybe something to cover her ass. A sudden wave of fear hit her, and she clapped both hands over her tailbone, feeling for the cotton ball plume of a rabbit’s tail. Sometimes the seasons and their associated holidays could be a little too literal. Halloween, especially, had a tendency to turn her into an anthropomorphic rabbit just for the hell of it.

Her fingers found some more roots that needed to be brushed away, but they didn’t find a tail. A similar check of her ears revealed a lack of other lapine features. She was still, for better or for worse, shaped essentially like a human--but that had been the case in Winter, too, at the beginning. She vaguely remembered a voice telling her that she’d been asleep for a week. So was this the beginning, then, or had she already been here long enough to be absorbed? It was impossible to tell.

“Hello?” She lowered her hands and raised her voice, looking around the small green space. “I’m here. I’m awake. I’m ready to talk about whatever it is this season wants from me, and PS, I’ll be a lot more friendly and reasonable if you give me some pants first. I’m not down with the casual nudity.”

The green walls did not reply. Velveteen sighed. “See, apart from making me talk to myself, which is a little cruel, you’re putting me in a position where I have to choose between property damage or being trapped in a weird room made out of plants. I’d really rather not start out by pissing you off, so if you could just come here and tell me what you want me to do, that would be awesome. Super awesome. Seriously.”

The green walls still did not reply. Velveteen, who was starting to feel rather foolish, crossed her arms and scowled at them. “Do you really want to see me force my way out of here?” she asked. “I just finished spending I don’t know how long in Winter, and we were not friendly terms for most of my stay. Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be.”

Silence from the greenery. It didn’t even have the decency to look nervous. Velveteen sighed.

“All right, you asked for it,” she said, and lowered her arms, and reached out with the part of herself that knew how to stir a teddy bear to strange and temporary life, the part of herself that had, in Winter, crafted an army out of snow and set it against her enemies. Her power had always been there, as calm and constant as the air she breathed, even when she hadn’t wanted it. Even when she’d tried to bury it. Too many of the anima of her generation had died for Supermodel’s vanity, and she was stronger than she should have been. So she reached--

--and screamed, hitting the mossy ground on her knees as pain, immediate and intense, washed over her. It felt like she was the one being ripped out by the root, and not whatever strange flowers had been planted in her flesh. She gasped, trying to stop reaching, but she had started the process; she couldn’t stop it, even now that it was out of her control and hurting her. She had to keep reaching until she found something, anything, to take the pain away.

Her questing mental fingers touched something bright and pulsing with hot, eager life. They shrank back for a moment, aware that this was wrong; this wasn’t what they were for. But the pain was so great, and the reach had been so far, that they couldn’t help themselves. They snapped closed around the bright, pulsing thing like a trap, and pulled it into themselves. From there, it spread to Velveteen. The pain stopped, like a switch had been flipped somewhere. As the flowers that Persephone had planted in Velvteen’s flesh burst through the skin of her back and bloomed into riotous color, the anima herself wobbled, trembled, and collapsed.

Everything was still.

*

“That went well.” The speaker was a six-foot-tall anthropomorphic rabbit. Somehow, this didn’t make him the strangest member of the little assemblage that looked down on the sleeping superheroine. The standards were slightly different, in Spring. “I mean, she didn’t throw up or explode or anything.”

“Most people don’t explode,” said the woman next to him. She was dressed in a sequined ball gown, a feathered mask over her eyes and a dozen strands of brightly colored beads around her neck. She sounded bored, and sat like she would rather be at a party, drinking champagne and dancing the night away in the arms of a stranger. Lady Moon had that sort of air about her, regardless of the hour. “It’s a thing that people are, in fact, not terribly inclined to do.”

Geb was not present, being notoriously reclusive in these modern times, and much more inclined to hole up in his palatial palace near the fields of eternal harvest and write long, passionate letters to his wife, the sky goddess Nut. Several geese were attending the convocation in his stead. They hissed at Lady Moon in what might have been agreement, or might have just been avian cussedness. Even being the chosen avatars of the Egyptian god of Earth and Harvest couldn’t make geese good-tempered.

Lady Moon shied away from the open mouths of the birds. “I do not like these things,” she announced. “Geese should be fried, and not heard.”

“They understand you, you know,” said the lithe young man who was perching in the nearest tree. He had vines tying back his hair, and eyes the color of new spring leaves. Pixies buzzed in the branches around him. He was known by many names outside of the season, but here he was only ever called by his first name: “Jack,” which suited him ever so much better than “Peter.” He looked at Lady Moon with absolutely no sympathy, and continued, “When they peck your eyes out, it’s going to be because of moments like this one.”

“She didn’t explode because she’s an anima,” said Persephone patiently. She had learned to be patient, with this group. Spring was a mercurial country: it was only natural that the spirits of the season would be equally variable in nature. “She can harness and process life. I fed her a very nice star-blossom, just to see what she would do.”

“What did she do before you planted her?” asked Jack.

Persephone’s patient smile became strained. “Don’t you remember when I told you who she was and why we needed her to come here? You’ve met her before, outside the season. Think, Jack.”

Jack frowned. “I don’t want to think. Thinking is what you’re for.”

“Mmm.” Persephone paused to take a deep breath. She knew better than to waste time in arguing with Jack, who rarely, if ever, bothered to remember anything he didn’t want to. “Before I planted her, she was an anima, just like she is now. She was simply a little more...self-sustaining.”

“Meaning what?” asked the Easter Bunny.

“Meaning she spent her own life force to do the things she did. She had a small internal pool of the stuff, and she exhausted that before she reached for anything ambient. She can’t do that right now. I’ve dammed the access points. If she wants to use her skills, she has to find life elsewhere to fuel them--and since she can’t reach her own stores, she’ll have to use them if she wants to live.” Persephone crouched down and smoothed a lock of Velveteen’s hair away from her face. “Life cannot exist without death and rebirth. They’re connected for a reason. I need her to understand that if she’s going to choose to stay here, with us.”

“Um, not to be a party-pooper, since that’s not really in my nature, but we’re the most alive things in Spring,” said Lady Moon, taking a step backward. “What’s to stop her seizing onto us and pulling all the goodness out?”

“Nothing, really,” said Persephone. “She could turn sour, give in to the rot that sleeps at the heart of every living thing. I’ve walked the Primrose Path, where all the cultivars of other worlds are grown, and I’ve seen versions of her that sprout in darker soil. Most of them go by ‘Marionette’ or ‘Roadkill,’ and they’re not suitable for Spring anymore. If she chooses that life, we can’t stop her. I don’t see it happening, though. She loves life too much to hurt anyone on purpose. There are fruits and flowers and bright streams to sacrifice for the things she needs to do for us. She’ll be stronger if she learns to be a river, and not a reservoir.”

“There used to be more like her,” said Jack suddenly. The others turned to look at him. He was frowning at Velveteen, seeming older and more present than he had only a few moments before. It wouldn’t last. It never did. “Anima put the sun in the sky and the soil under our feet. They were everywhere. Where did they all go? They were supposed to be here. They were never supposed to be this strong, but they were supposed to be here.”

“They went to the ground,” said Persephone, who had been an anima herself once, centuries ago, before the earth had split open below her feet and the God of Death had offered her a place in the seasonal lands, where she would never need to grow old, or tire, or die. She would have other duties, and be cut off--as all anima who chose to serve a season were--from the life of the world. It had seemed like the greatest gift she would ever be offered, and she had taken it, and never looked back. She still wasn’t sorry. “She’ll go to the ground too, one day, unless she chooses us. Now go, all of you. She’ll wake soon. I need to explain what’s been done to her.”

“I don’t envy you that, sugar,” said Lady Moon, and sauntered off, the green vine wall opening to let her pass. Jack and the Easter Bunny followed her, leaving Persephone alone with the sleeping Velveteen. And with the geese, of course.

Persephone looked at the geese. The geese looked at Persephone. Persephone sighed. The largest and meanest-looking of the geese honked at her.

“Look, I don’t care if you feel like you should supervise, you’re not going to,” she said. “No one likes geese. You’re basically giant, evil ducks, and if you’re here when she wakes up, she’s going to be understandably distressed. Go back to whatever it is you do when you’re not being a pain in my ass, and I’ll make sure someone tells you when she’s awake.”

The geese honked again. Persephone made a small shooing gesture with her hands, and was relieved when the large waterfowl turned and waddled away. She was a goddess of life and death and springtime. That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt like anything when geese attacked her calves.

With a wave of her hand she closed the opening in the wall, and settled down on the moss, watching Velveteen as she slept. Soon, it would be time to start explaining herself. She wasn’t looking forward to that part, but some things couldn’t be helped.

If you wanted to win the prize, you had to be willing to at least attempt to play the game.

*

Velveteen opened her eyes and found herself looking at the face of a goddess. Persephone’s skin was several shades darker than Velveteen’s own, and her hair was a purple-black riot of curls, shot through with veins of white and pink and red, like she was her own field of flowers on the verge of bursting into bloom. Her eyes were green, until she blinked; then they were brown, and when she blinked again, they were blue, ever-changing as the season she stood for. Velveteen thought that Persephone might just be the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

Persephone smiled. “Hello, Velveteen,” she said. “How are you feeling?”

“Naked,” said Velveteen, without thinking. Then she froze, her cheeks darkening to a deep, cherry red. “Oh fuck I’m naked in front of a goddess. Oh fuck, I just said fuck in front of a goddess. Uh. Please don’t smite me, or whatever it is you people do here in the springtime. I’m much happier when I’m not getting smote. Smited? What the hell is the past tense of ‘smite’?”

Persephone blinked at her for a moment before she threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, I am going to enjoy having you here. My name is Persephone. I’m a goddess, yes, but that doesn’t mean much in a world where men can fly and women can shoot rainbows from their hands. I was just a superheroine a few centuries before it was fashionable, so I got a better title and more worshippers than most people do these days. I got tired of it, eventually, and I moved into the seasonal lands. There’s less outright worship here. More geese, but less worship.”

“Geese?” said Velveteen blankly. She sat up, trying to cover herself with her hands. “I really appreciate the warm welcome, and I’m sure I’ll get over the part where I used to read about you in books soon, but right now, still naked, still not really thrilled about that. Help?”

“Help yourself,” said Persephone, rising and taking a step back. “Everything you need is here.”

For a moment, Velveteen could only gape at her. Then she groaned. “Oh, seriously? This is a test? Look, your, uh, goddess-ship, I don’t know if you know this, but I have spent the last however long being treated like a dancing bear by people I thought were my friends. I am done with tests. I’ll sweep your floors, I’ll do your dishes, whatever, I don’t give a shit. All my shits have been given. What I won’t do is take any more pointless, painful tests just to show that I deserve a job I never asked for in the first place.”

“Spring doesn’t want you,” said Persephone.

Velveteen blinked. “Uh, hate to break it to you, lady, but if Spring didn’t want me, I’d be in Autumn right now. I’m sort of glad not to be--those people are assholes--and at the same time, I can’t really believe you when you say that I’m not wanted.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t wanted, Velveteen,” said Persephone. “Spring doesn’t want you. I want you.”

Velveteen blinked again, more slowly this time. Then she narrowed her eyes, squinting at Persephone for a moment before she said, almost accusingly, “You’re an anima.”

“Yes, I am,” said Persephone. “That’s why I was called to Spring. I don’t share your specialization. I don’t animate things that aren’t alive. I channel small amounts of ambient life force into the world around me. So mosquitoes die while flowers bloom--or sometimes, vice versa. Everything has to balance, after all. We’re not meant to be swords, cleaving reality from itself. We’re meant to be scalpels, nudging things to where they’re intended to be. What Supermodel did when she killed all the other anima of your generation...it wasn’t fair.”

“Oddly enough, I’m pretty sure they’d agree with you,” said Velveteen. The fact that she was having this conversation while bare-ass naked was becoming less pressing as the urge to slap a goddess rose. “You know, what with them winding up dead and everything.”

“Death is a transition, not an ending,” said Persephone. “I can’t sorrow for them embarking on a new adventure. I can be angry at the woman who set them on that path too soon. I can be angrier still at what their passing did to you. The power you wield should never have been yours to bear.”

“Yeah, poor me,” said Velveteen. “It’s all fucked up and awful. You know what would make it better? If I had some pants on. Pants improve my quality of life amazingly.”

The corner of Persephone’s mouth quirked upward. “Is that so? I was unaware of the restorative qualities of trousers before you mentioned them.”

“Give me a pair and find out.”

“I’m afraid I can’t. If you want to be clothed here, you must clothe yourself. If you want to be fed, you must convince the season to feed you. This is part of how you earn your place.” Persephone shrugged. “I had to undergo the same trials, if it helps at all.”

“Not really sure it does,” said Velveteen. She started to spread her hands and stopped, the memory of pain haunting her. “When I tried to use my powers before...it hurt.”

“Of course it did,” said Persephone. “In the calendar country people like you and I walk in flesh, not in flower. We are the living, and as such, we have a small pool of life to draw upon. Enough for simple tasks, like waking a teddy bear or growing a sapling. Here, we have to use other methods of getting things done. It hurt because you were empty. You filled yourself, and the pain stopped.”

Velveteen stared at her. Then, in a slow, careful tone, she asked, “Are you telling me that I sucked the life out of something to make myself feel better?”

“A large bromeliad, of a type which blossoms once every twenty years. They store up a remarkable amount of potency as they grow. You found the nearest of them and you drank it dry. Don’t look so appalled, Velveteen; this is what I plant them for.” Persephone shook her head. “I told you Spring didn’t want you and that I did; that wasn’t a lie. I want you because there’s been no one to teach you, and you’re too strong. The threat of you echoes across realities and into worlds that should never have been born. It’s not normal, for two seasons to compete over a single soul, while a third stands willingly by. It’s not normal for reality to dance at an anima’s command. You have to be taught, Velveteen, because Supermodel did you no favors when she made you the conduit for the powers of a generation. You’re more of a danger than you know. Now clothe yourself, and come to me. You need me more than I need you. Believe that, if you believe nothing else I say.”

Persephone rose, leaving Velveteen gaping after her, and calmly walked toward the wall of green vines and leaves. It opened at her approach, allowing her to step through, and slid closed again behind her. The leaves rustled as they slid back into position. Silence followed.

“Okay, wow,” said Velveteen, after a minute had ticked past with no sign that Persephone was planning to return. “I mean, wow. I was not expecting Spring to be even more fucked-up than Winter, you know. Brava to you for exceeding all previous standards.”

Persephone didn’t return. Velveteen lowered her hands, realizing that there was no point in covering herself if there was no one there to see her.

“Fucked-up times five million,” she said, almost philosophically. Then she closed her eyes, and reached.

If anyone had been there to watch her--a living incarnation of the Carnival season, for example, or a flock of peevish, god-touched geese--they would have seen the moss that Velveteen was sitting on flow up her body like a green shroud, wrapping itself around her until it had formed the outline of a dress. Then it burst into flower, growing white and pink and yellow blossoms that covered her as completely as any gown. Vines reached up to twine in her hair, pulling it back from her face and twisting it upward until it looked like it had been styled, and not simply given over to the whims of nature.

Panting slightly, Velveteen opened her eyes and looked down at herself. A lone wildflower was poking out of the skin at the inside of her elbow. She looked at it. The flower remained.

“So this is how it’s going to be here, huh? First I get to be snow, and now I’m made of flowers? You people never know when to leave well enough alone.” But at least her hands were the color of skin, and she could feel the steady beating of her heart inside her chest. That wasn’t much. It was so much more than she’d had in so long.

Barefoot and shaky, Velveteen stood. There was something different about moving now that she was made of soft, bendable things, and not unyielding snow. When she was sure that she wasn’t going to fall she walked to the green wall and raised her hand. The vines parted, revealing Persephone standing on the other side, waiting. She smiled when she saw Velveteen.

“You look lovely,” she said. “That dress suits you.”

“Flowers are growing out of my body and it feels like someone hollowed me out when I wasn’t looking,” said Velveteen. She walked toward Persephone. “What did you do to me?”

“Winter cut you off from yourself because it wanted you to be all power and no pain. You missed out on a lot of life in that time. I’ve connected you to everything in this season, and walled off the access to what little of your original self you have left. You’ll need to learn how to use your powers if you want to survive your time here without doing any major damage. I’ll teach you how.”

Velveteen scowled at her. “Why? So I’ll choose Spring and stay here and, I don’t fucking know, bring all the baby bunnies back from the dead?”

“We believe in rebirth, not starting the zombie apocalypse for Easter,” said Persephone. “I would love it if you chose Spring. Believe it or not, I get tired, and it would be nice to go home to Hades and tell him that I didn’t have to leave for a few hundred years. We could catch up on our reading. Maybe finally take a vacation. But if you leave here with a better grasp of what you’re capable of, that’s going to be enough for me. You’re a weapon that walks like a woman right now, Velveteen, and I need that to stop. For the sake of the world, you need to be brought under control.”

“We’re going to need to agree on a few ground rules if I’m going to do this,” said Velveteen. “First is no lying to me. If you lie to me, even once, even through omission, I’m gone. You got that? I may not be able to get out of your season without you unlocking the door, but that doesn’t mean I have to go along with any of your wacky schemes or do you any favors.”

“Understood,” said Persephone. “Continue.”

“Second, if I ask you a question, you actually answer it. No looking mysterious and walking away. I don’t care if you’re a goddess, that’s no excuse to be rude.”

Persephone smiled. “Again, understood. I’m honestly not here to hurt you.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me?” Velveteen sounded suddenly lost. “I mean, I’ve known for years that Spring had a claim on me. I’ve met the Easter Bunny before. I always figured my tenure here would be about dancing eggs and fake grass, not...not harvest goddesses and the need for renewal. You knew about Supermodel. You knew she was killing all the other animuses. You could have said something. You could have stopped her.”

“No, I couldn’t have,” said Persephone gently. “My reach is limited in the modern world. There’s only so much I’m allowed to do, so much I’m allowed to interfere. Spring had no claim on Supermodel once she turned her back on the cycle of things, and so Spring wasn’t permitted to get in her way when she started doing wrong. I couldn’t warn you. All I can do is help you now, if you’ll let me.”

Velveteen was silent for a long while. Finally, she nodded. “All right,” she said. “What do we do first?”

“Come,” said Persephone. “I’ll take you to meet the others.” She held out her hand. Velveteen took it, and they walked away together, into the springtime that never ends.
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